Let’s talk about Authority and Docility


I recently began Charlotte Mason’s third volume, School Education, and it’s quite a kick in the pants right from the start. She comes out strongly, discussing just what is authority and how it can be rightly used.

Let’s back up.

Her first two principles define what a person is, but the third and forth begin to define rights and responsibilities regarding those persons. Authority and Obedience are two sides of one coin and because of personhood can only be rightly used in certain ways; rather, there are ways authority must not be used to manipulate or overburden persons.

In Chapters 1 and 2 of Volume 3, she goes into detail about Authority and the proper exercise thereof. She details excesses in both directions – arbitrary tyranny and despotism or autocracy vs complete dethronement because “every act of authority is … an infringement on the rights or man or of child.” p 6

As Authority and Docility are a pair of principles, there must be a proper use of authority that doesn’t veer into the ditch on one side or the other; there must be a middle way.

We usually think of “docile” as tractable, completely beholden to obedience, a docile child is a limp biscuit who cannot act or think for themselves. This is not what Mason means. What she really seems to be saying is that authority carries all the way down the line and that docility is using one’s authority over oneself to accomplish what ought to be done.

I am, I can, I ought, I will indeed.

It’s a position of strength.

God, of course, is the ultimate authority. He has deputed some of that, through Christ, to governments, the church, to parents. “…none of us has a right to exercise authority, in things great or small, except as we are, and acknowledge ourselves to be, deputed by the one supreme and ultimate Authority.” p 7

As such, we are given authority as ones under authority. Jesus taught with authority, unlike the scribes. The rest of us have higher-ups to report to, he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth and under the earth – all shall submit.

But that authority we have been given is real. It is, properly, under the oversight of Jesus and so we have rights and responsibilities in its use. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t manipulate with love or fear, but come alongside.

But our students, too, have been given authority as persons. Persons who have a will and a mind separate from our own. I often remind my girls to be gentle with little people who want to go a different direction than my teens wish to go, that coercion – physical or mental – can be offending to personhood. It’s so hard, so natural to want to exercise our will over someone else, but that is autocracy, not authority.

The authority of personhood is over their own selves. Docility is the right exercise thereof. It’s a power, not a weakness of character. It’s choosing to do what is right because it’s right, not out of fear of retribution or simply to please another. Again, it’s authority properly used under authority.

It’s like a tree, starting at root, feeding trunk, reaching out to stem. Each has it’s authority over the next in line, and each can properly exercise its identity within that framework, growing and, eventually bearing fruit in season.

When we recognize that we must obey God and must have authority over our children, we have more sympathy and understanding with both positions and can better utilize our will to do the work at hand.


  1. Iā€™m about to start Volume 3 with my local group so I really appreciate some of your thoughts here to share and discuss.

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